SIRTE | Among the crumbling remains of the city Muammar Gaddafi once favoured as the “capital of Africa”, frustration is simmering.
Four months after Libya’s leader met his end in his hometown Sirte, the fishing village he turned into a model city lies in ruins.
Having once enjoyed the patronage and cash of the Gaddafi clan, Sirte is now struggling to adapt to the realities of the new Libya. Its residents say they feel sidelined by the North African country’s postwar rulers.
Sirte’s experience raises questions of whether the new Libya can embrace the many communities across the country which did not back the revolt – out of fear, because they supported Gaddafi, or for whatever reason – as well as those who did.
“We feel that there is no one taking care of us, that we are not important to the government nor the National Transitional Council,” 52-year-old Mohammed Salem said as he walked around his home, its upper floor now reduced to rubble.
“We are living in a terrible state – the houses we live in are severely damaged. It’s dangerous. They didn’t come to visit us nor meet families to help end the suffering here. We feel that we need this from them.”
Tiptoeing over debris, broken furniture and scattered sandals, Salem, an employee at the local price control office, points to the bombed ceiling of what was his children’s nursery.
Large pieces of brick cover the mattress of a dusty cot, a chandelier lies broken on the floor. Painted cartoon characters and pictures of a smiling baby still cover the walls and a door.
His family live in two rooms on the ground floor.
Sirte, the city of 100,000 people has paid a heavy price for being the last bastion of Gaddafi’s 42 years of personal power.
After rebels captured swathes of Libya, Gaddafi sought sanctuary among his tribal kin and loyal supporters in the city he groomed as an international hub with its own grand conference centre. A frequent summit venue, he lobbied – in vain – for Sirte to host the headquarters of the African Union.
But, during an eight-week siege, parts of the town were reduced to rubble in fighting and, locals say, by vindictive rebel forces from elsewhere.
Deep tribal and regional rivalries, notably between the people of Sirte and those who came from Misrata or Benghazi whose triumphant slogans are graffitied across the city, underlie fears that Libya, for all the postwar euphoria elsewhere, could face trouble in the future.
An interim government, appointed in November, is trying to build a democratic state, leading the nation to its first free elections, but it is struggling to impose its authority on the myriad armed groups which fought to oust Gaddafi.
The feelings in Sirte underline the challenge it faces in easing tensions and reconciling groups from all over Libya.
“Gaddafi came to Sirte but families here had nothing to do with this. They dragged us into the war,” Salem’s wife Fadia said. “It was a mistake for him to come here. All these political problems this has caused need to be solved.”
In a city that once served as a showcase to foreign dignitaries, nearly every building bears the scars of war.
Residents who fled the fighting have started to return to homes, but many of them are damaged or gutted by fires and explosions. Around them, bunting in the red, green and black colours of the NTC flag has replaced Gaddafi’s green flag.
Sitting in a large office in the bullet-marked complex where Gaddafi’s ministers would meet, Mohammed Ali Kabalan, head of Sirte’s local council, describes his city’s state as “tragic”.
“It’s a disaster,” he said. “People in Sirte are frustrated.
“Until now, we haven’t received any official help, just aid from humanitarian organisations. We are trying to fix things by ourselves. The government has promised to come but because they don’t have money now, there is not much they can do.”
Kabalan said the interim housing and interior ministers had visited Sirte for meetings but residents wanted more support from national leaders.
Sirte, sitting in the middle of Libya’s coast, at the edge of a deep desert hinterland, was long associated with Gaddafi and his tribe and did well out of that. But, locals insist, some residents also supported the uprising against his rule.
“There is a small group, a few people who are very poor, I don’t know why, but they still believe in Gaddafi,” Kabalan said. “But what did he do for them? Muammar Gaddafi is finished, he is in the past.
“People want security, safety, they want to rebuild our city. Some are frustrated, others understand the country is going through a difficult time and that we have to wait.”
In the once favoured seafront neighbourhood known as District Two, scene of some of the heaviest fighting and where Gaddafi is believed to have hidden in his last days, some houses have entire walls missing. Windows are shattered or blown off, fallen balcony railings hang to one side.
Street lamp-posts are riddled with bullet holes.
“The war finished months ago. What are they waiting for? We expected more done in this time,” another resident, Saleh Mohammed said as he walked past destroyed villas.
“We haven’t been offered any support. I feel like I am not welcome in Libya but it’s my right to ask the government to rebuild homes, to visit us.”
Ahmed Qurbaj, who heads a local committee assessing the scale of destruction in the city, estimates that some 7,000 to 8,000 houses will need some kind of work.
“So far, we visited 7,000 houses and 6,000 are damaged,” he said. “Some families are living in just one room. They don’t have money to move elsewhere. We need an urgent solution.”
While he said there was no estimate yet for rebuilding costs, he said these could go up to $1.5 billion, including patching up homes and repairing the city’s infrastructure.
Sirte is not the only place desperately needing rebuilding. Some parts of Misrata, a two-hour drive west, were also bombed beyond recognition during last year’s war, when Gaddafi’s army encircled the port city and laid siege to rebels inside.
“There is no difference between Sirte and other destroyed cities,” Libyan Planning Minister Issa al-Tuwejer told Reuters in Tripoli. “They will all receive the same level of attention.”
Government officials speak of Sirte in conciliatory tones and pledge it will be treated fairly, but many in the town itself believe their city is being marginalized as the new Libyan order takes shape.
“The NTC is just about ink on paper. There is nothing concrete on the ground. Where is the rebuilding in Sirte? You walk on the street, these are the buildings,” Ahmed Mahmoud al-Abdalli said pointing to charred apartment blocks.
“Yes we are free but the living conditions are zero.”
At a celebration in Misrata last week, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil warned against regional rivalries. But while he namechecked some of the towns whose fighters took a lead in the revolt, he notably did not mention Sirte at all.
“We fear Libya will be divided,” he told the crowd. “I ask everyone that they say Libya is our address – there is no Zintan, no Misrata, no Benghazi, there is one united Libya.”
Though few of Sirte’s residents now express nostalgia for Gaddafi, some long for aspects of their previous lives.
“In the previous regime, life was hard but there was security and safety and there weren’t so many weapons around. Anything small now can easily escalate into a fight,” said Mohammed Salem as he looked around his damaged home.
“I can express my feelings and opinion. This is freedom. But freedom doesn’t mean I can terrorise other people.”
Residents acknowledge that the perception of Sirte as a loyalist town persists, but they hope that will one day end.
“Yes Muammar was here but we can’t change that – not me nor anyone else,” Saleh Mohammed said in District Two.
“But it doesn’t mean that all Sirte was loyal or supported him. First we are Libyans and then residents of Sirte.” (Additional reporting by Taha Zargoun in Tripoli; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)